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Remembering Thomas Sokolowski, a Distinguished Museum Leader, Activist, Art Historian 

Thomas Sokolowski
Thomas Sokolowski was the director of Rutgers’ Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and a distinguished curator, museum leader and art historian.

Zimmerli director was noted for his arts leadership and HIV/AIDS activism

Thomas Sokolowski, director of Rutgers’ Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum and a distinguished curator, museum leader and art historian who is also noted for his HIV/AIDS activism, died May 6.

Sokolowski, 70, joined the Rutgers community in the fall of 2017 with responsibilities for the museum’s exhibitions, scholarship and community outreach.

“Tom was a dynamic thinker whose intellect and knowledge of art history inspired the Zimmerli board and the associated Rutgers community. His enthusiastic personality, sense of humor and, above all, passion for the arts quickly became the essence of the museum,” said Rutgers University-New Brunswick Chancellor Christopher Molloy.

Sokolowski brought 35 years of experience as a museum professional to the Zimmerli. He had an unusual appreciation of university-based art museums and envisioned the museum as a centerpiece of Rutgers’ flagship campus with the intention of welcoming students and faculty across all disciplines, alumni and the general public. Under his leadership, Study All Night became an annual signature event that welcomed students to interact and jointly experience the treasures of the Zimmerli.

Similarly, Sokolowski ensured that the museum remained an accessible venue that supported community engagement events and served as a beacon for ethnic and cultural programs hosted at Rutgers-New Brunswick. 

“Tom was a visionary leader and a unique spirit who could light up an audience with his wit and unique way with words. He wanted nothing less than for the Zimmerli to be the best university art museum in the world. We were diligently working together to achieve his vision before his untimely passing.  The entire advisory board and I mourn the loss of our colleague, leader and friend,” said James J. Bergin, chair of the Zimmerli Advisory Board of Directors and VP Law, Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

From 1996 to 2010, Sokolowski was director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, PA. He created a strategic plan of operations and increased the institution’s visibility on the international stage. He also deployed the museum’s artworks by Warhol by curating exhibitions in 49 countries around the world, making these objects accessible to an estimated 9.3 million museumgoers and generating more than $30 million of earned revenue.

Previously, Sokolowski was chief curator at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and director of the Grey Art Gallery & Study Center at New York University. He also was curator of the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and served on the faculties at New York University, the University of Minnesota and Kent State University. He graduated with a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1972 and later received an M.A. from New York University. 

Notably, he challenged the world to fight the AIDS epidemic. In 1988, he and several friends founded the art activist organization Visual AIDS, which established the “Day Without Art” commemoration and made the red ribbon an icon of awareness. In 1992, he curated From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS with Robert Atkins, one of the first touring museum exhibitions to address the subject. 

“One person can do anything if they tried,” Sokolowski told Rutgers Today in November 2018. “I never could have imagined what a group of four men in the '80s could have done to start this movement in AIDS awareness, but we did. Visual AIDS was the most important thing I have ever done, but it’s time now for the younger generation to take charge and make change in this world.”

“Tom will be remembered as a scholar, activist and esteemed museum professional who combined love for art with social responsibility in the work he did every day,” said Donna Gustafson, curator of modern and contemporary art and Mellon director of academic programs at the Zimmerli Art Museum. “Those of us who had the pleasure of working with him will remember him for his wide-ranging interests in art, in people and in music, film and theater, and his desire to share his love of great works of art with as wide a community as he could embrace.”

A memorial is planned for a later date.